And Then There Were Two: McKayla Wilkes, Steny Hoyer, and the Race for Maryland District 5

Just under a year ago, two contenders joined the Democratic primary race to unseat House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer: McKayla Wilkes and Briana Urbina.

Hoyer, a longtime congressperson for the nautilus shell-shaped Maryland District 5 located outside East D.C., has represented the changing district for almost forty years. Though he has long been a representative of the district, he has not faced a challenge this substantial in decades. Two challengers, each having cropped up in the last few election cycles, were decisively defeated, neither of them taking in more than 15% of the primary vote. Once brushed aside, Hoyer has been able to confidently prevail in the effectively one-party district that is the 5th Maryland, rarely losing more than 20 percent of the total vote. All the while he has become a key player in the politics of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and a noted opponent of progressive and socialist activists within the Party, even going so far as to directly intimidate primary challengers half the country away for attempting to shift the party to the left.

His challengers are more representative of Prince George’s County than he is. Inspired by the now-famous election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over Jim Crowley in the Democratic Party primary in New York in 2018, Wilkes is a part-time student and single mother who has gained national prominence for her strong focus on affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and a Green New Deal. Herself a victim of the criminal justice system, she has been emphatic about the urgency about ending the war on drugs and providing a socially conscious alternative to the policing that has victimized many residents of the county. In October 22nd of this year, she was endorsed by Metro DC DSA. Her letter to the membership was published in the Washington Socialist and can be found here.

Briana Urbina is a civil rights lawyer and self-described Afro-Latina who ran on a similar platform of transformative change. Though her campaign failed to gather the same support and team as the Wilkes campaign, she campaigned on a slate of comparable proposals, including a moratorium on the closing of public housing and signing on to an ambitious federal housing bill calling for upwards of $500 billion to provide a greater degree of access to public housing and close the white-black homeownership gap.

But only one of them could prevail as a challenger to Hoyer. Towards the end of last year, it started to become apparent that was going to be Mckayla. Finally, after months of increasing adversity, the Urbina campaign was forced to suspend its operations in early January. A review of the state of the race provides a clear explanation as to why. In addition to lacking the connections that rapidly proliferated among the Wilkes campaign amongst progressive Democrats, the financials of the campaign swiftly became untenable. As of their September filing, Briana’s campaign was effectively broke. Despite this, both her and Mckayla’s candidacies remain a promising sign of rising socialist sentiments in Prince George’s county.

However, much to the dismay of the Wilkes campaign, Ms. Urbina has not withdrawn her candidacy as of this writing. The fear that a splitting of the progressive vote might simply return power to Hoyer is a real concern. To those watching the race, the necessity of Ms. Urbina not only removing herself from the race but actively campaigning on behalf of Mckayla in order to give the latter a fighting chance for a shared cause seems obvious. In light of the similarity of their appeals, one would think that efforts to pool resources would be well underway. Sadly, they are not.

This is crucial. Arguably only Nancy Pelosi is as powerfully connected and invested in the status quo of the DCCC as Hoyer. A blow to either of them— as Mckayla is attempting to do in Maryland, and Shattid Bhutar is attempting to do in Pelosi’s own district— would send a powerful message that the politics-as-usual approach of the DCCC will no longer stand. It is for this reason, despite the healthy skepticism of electoral politics that pervades the Democratic Socialists of America, that the rank-and-file opted to endorse both candidates.

This skepticism should also be taken with a hefty helping of realism. The inspiring thing about upsets like the one both these challengers wanted to reproduce is that they are rare and difficult, rather than common and easy. On the fundraising front alone, the Wilkes campaign amazed outside observers when she met her fundraising goal of $120,000 by December 31 just before the deadline. On the other hand, Hoyer’s most recent filings indicate that he currently holds about $1.1 million on hand for his race, with the ability to tap some of the deepest pockets in Washington should he require more assistance.

None of this is cause for slowing the pace of our efforts to put up a real challenger in Maryland District 5. The work of Metro DC and Prince George’s DSA have been fantastic, and the intermingling of all of these different socialist and progressive causes is a great source of strength for campaigns that lack the bottomless resources of entrenched candidates. To those that want to get involved, contacting the campaign directly or joining the campaign’s slack are all great ways to get started. For more on the campaign itself, the author conducted an interview in the early days of the campaign that can be found here.  

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